15 Mar 2021

Surf Life Saving NZ: 'We need to do better'

9:06 am on 15 March 2021

Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ) is calling for more public education about water safety following a report which outlines New Zealand's poor drowning rates.

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Photo: Supplied / Surf Lifesaving NZ

On average, 36 people drown every year on New Zealand's coastlines, according to the Beach & Coastal Safety Report published by SLSNZ today.

Most drownings occurred on non-lifeguarded beaches or outside of patrol hours, and 87 percent of victims are male.

Pasifika, Māori and Asians were the most over-represented in fatal drowning figures, while Northland, with 4.2 fatal drownings per 100,000 people, had the highest beach drowning rate in New Zealand.

SLSNZ chief executive Paul Dalton said the new findings were deeply upsetting.

"The number of fatal beach and coastal drownings in New Zealand has actually increased by 18 percent over the past five years compared to the previous five years … and our fatal beach and coastal drowning rate is 48 percent worse, per capita, than Australia's," he said.

"Every person who dies on our beaches and coastlines is someone with a whānau (family) and a community who loves them and misses them. What's particularly gut-wrenching is that, as with the road toll, most fatal drownings are preventable."

Dalton said it was time for all Kiwis to think about prevention and education.

"We can't have surf lifeguards everywhere, so how are we going to approach this? Who's responsible? And who's going to pay for it?"

He said SLSNZ was a charity and while it did receive government funding towards frontline operational expenses, the money did not cover public safety campaigns and education.

"Road, fire and boating safety have had significant investment in public education strategies and campaigns, which has reduced deaths and injuries and also raised awareness of the issues. It's now time to do the same for beach and coastal safety."

SLSNZ said the report also highlighted the "critical lack of public awareness around beach and coastal safety".

In the decade to 2020, surf lifeguards rescued more than 10,000 people on beaches and coastlines, carried out more than 20,400 first aid responses and almost 1,000,000 preventative actions.

"These are incredibly sobering figures, but they're just part of the picture," Dalton said.

"As a volunteer-based organisation with a 111-year-old focus on beach and coastal safety, we are at the coalface of what could accurately be described as a major public safety problem.

"What the figures in this report tell us is that, had it not been for our volunteers, more than 10,000 people could have died from drowning on our beaches and coastlines over the past decade. That's more than twice the road toll for the same period. "

Dalton said SLSNZ strongly supported the Water Safety Sector Strategy in calling for greater investment in long-term, evidence based beach and coastal safety education.

"We can only do so much as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff - we need better public education as the fence at the top.

"We've actually perhaps got a bigger problem than we first thought," he told Morning Report.

"There's lots of factors coming into it but it certainly shows we've got a lot of work to do to turn it around.

"We've got some attitudes and behavioural issues to solve and that's really got to be through education.

"It's basically underestimating the risk associated with activities on the water and we're overestimating our ability to deal with those. It's always been a factor. We've seen for a long time that the male statistics have been much, much worse than female."

Per capita, Māori and Pacific peoples were over-represented in the figures, Dalton said.

"Their exposure to risk is a bit higher than other ethnicities simply because of kaimoana, the connection they have with the water. They are out there doing stuff, and different stuff to everyone else."

Education needed to continue with an "ages and stages" approach "so that we're not just trying to get it all over and done with teaching kids to swim and then forgetting about it".

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